[This is the full text of my one-hour book-tour talk including the readings (in italics) from A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity. At 5000 words, it is a much longer post than usual, so you might like to save it for later]
The title for this talk, ‘Story-power: Why We Need it to Survive’, was inspired by a remark of Umberto Ecco that “To survive you must tell stories.”
The challenge in planning my talk was that this cultural history of storytelling starts with our prehistory and ends in the present – that’s about a quarter of a million years –and its scope is worldwide, but I had 6 years and 480 pages to do it in. Today we have one hour together.
In fact, I could talk about almost anything, and it could be relevant to the significance of stories in our lives, because storytelling defines our humanity. It is universal – stories are everywhere and into everything. We have probably been telling each other stories since we acquired language and began to develop its potential.
But I have chosen the theme that runs through the book – the power of stories in our survival as human beings. It is not necessary I think for me to go into all the problems and threats that humans have had to deal with. Dictators, wars, oppression, censorship, alternative facts and the control of narrative go back millennia. Victors have always written history in their favour, and the powerful have always repressed the stories of those under their power. But Story has always found a way to wriggle free.
So what I want to do is share with you some of Story’s successes. I should explain that, in writing this cultural history as a biography of Story, I made her a nominal character – ageless, omniscient, and female – but a character whose daughters, sons, lovers and protégé – the storytellers – have, through the ages sustained our survival physically, spiritually and socially.
And as I do that, I will read snippets from the book that I hope will give at least a brief glimpse into the other aims I had in writing it: to introduce stories from all corners of the world as well as revisit old classics that tend to be forgotten, and to reconnect us with history and bring alive for us people from the past with personal anecdotes of their lives.
In our prehistory as foragers and hunters, the storytellers were those with special knowledge, and the skill to pass it on in a way that people would remember best – as oral stories. Shamans, wise women, healers and champion hunters, they knew where the best food could be gathered, where to dig water holes, and make fire. In a similar way that today’s Aboriginal women in Central Australia are guardians of the bush lore – the rituals and stories of the Dreaming – that have enabled their culture to survive for some 60,000 years.
And some of these stories are extremely old. Recent research has traced the origins of the folktale Jack and the Beanstalk back to 3000 BC. And the roots of flood stories may go back to the melting of ice in the last ice age – some 9,000 years ago. The biblical story of the deluge was already ancient before it was written in the Bible, and the essence of these tales is still with us. The knowledge they contain still help us to survive. I’d like to read to you one example.
The Moken tribe, nomadic sea people and boat dwellers around the coasts and archipelagos of Burma and southern Thailand, practically have the ocean flowing in their veins – many were born at sea in their parents’ boats. The name ‘Moken’ means ‘immersed in water’. Their elders tell many tales of laboon, the ‘seventh wave’, sent to clear the world of evil and to enable a new start. In one of these stories, a wave was so huge that it inundated all the land except the tops of the highest mountains. Those who survived, a few people from every race, gathered together and were sent a prophet to urge them to repopulate the world. It was such a special time that even men were able to give birth.
On Christmas Day 2004, while gathering wild honey near the beach, a young Moken tribesman noticed the sea being sucked back in an extraordinary way, leaving boats stranded in wet sand blemished with heaps of glistening seaweed. When young Ngoei saw this, he rushed home to consult the elders. Salama, the tribal chief, said it was the coming of laboon that had swallowed whole islands in ancient times, and warned everyone to run towards the mountains. Young men already out fishing in their kabang, their traditional long wooden canoes, were tossed about by a thirty-metre wave and their boats drawn out into deep water.
Few will have forgotten that tsunami: it devastated coastal communities of South East Asia, killing almost a quarter of a million people. But with the strength of cultural knowledge that Story had preserved, every person of the Moken tribe survived; their fishermen, too, came safely back from far out at sea and saved many people left stranded on protruding rocks and floating debris.
[For further details of the Moken, see ‘The Last See Nomads: Inside the Disappearing World of the Moken, Susan Smillie, Guardian Shorts 2014]
Stories sustain us spiritually and morally as well as physically. From the earliest creation myths and folk tales to modern novels, they allow us to rehearse ideas and relationships from a safe distance, they confirm our identity, and they lessen our anxiety over the unknown and unknowable.
And one of the biggest unknowns has always been … what the other person is really thinking and likely to do. This is still the big question: how to live our lives to our best advantage while co-operating with others; how to balance personal needs within a relationship and with the common good because we are essentially social animals. Getting it wrong has made many lawyers very rich.
If you think about it, soap operas are a modern form of moral tale: the Archers tackles social issues. Helen and Rob Titchener were trending on social media at the height of their domestic conflict. Facebook and Twitter are like a virtual garden fence for gossip – and gossip is an important form of storytelling.
But the Archers brought down the bad guy … eventually, one agonising episode at a time. They do it through story techniques of suspense that keep us on edge, one ear to the radio while the dinner burns. It’s the same story technique used centuries ago in the tales of A Thousand and One Nights, when Scheherazade’s life is threatened each dawn by the despotic king, her husband, so she tells a tale each night, leaving it at a critical point in the plot to save her life for another day.
The greatest challenges often come from those nearest to us with whom there is greatest competition … our families. Some old folktales have their origins in ancient rules of kinship, rules that say who you can and cannot marry, about marriages arranged to make tribal alliances, and the trauma of girls having to leave the security of home to live with strangers in their new husband’s clan, as was the case in patriarchal societies. Some of you may know the ancient Norse epic, the Saga of the Volsung, a tale of family power, betrayal and revenge. It’s quite a bloody story, in the Volsung there are thirty-eight deliberate killings of named characters … over half of them are in-laws.
Making marriage alliances was fraught with danger for our ancestors. Marriage outside the bloodline was necessary, and so was exchange of brides to create alliances for defence, but in-laws were strangers with access to your own hearth; they could become the enemy within.
Today, marriage partnerships are more often based on personal choice rather than political expediency, but the emotional complexities seem just as hazardous. It’s little wonder that difficult family relationships appear so often in films, plays, novels and stories of all kinds.
I expect many of you have in-laws … we won’t go there.
Much of the early wisdom that has stayed with us in stories has its roots in our close association with nature, with the animals around us at a time when we knew our place in the environment. Aesop is probably the best known collector and writer of animal fables, or ‘beast tales’ but every society had their own, in the Middle East, in India, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Originally, these were not religious tales. They were about leading a decent life while getting along with others, but fables were so effective a means of learning that they were adapted by all major religions and in various forms appear in the Bible, the Qu’ran the Talmud and in Buddhist and Hindu scriptures.
The power of a fable as a simple prose story with little plot but a clear message, is its basis in fact. This is why there can be many different versions of the same fable, because the animals, the settings and the moral are adjusted for each location and culture. In the Buddhist Jataka stories, Lion is a vegetarian who lives on honey and fruit.
But fables have been very useful in society as allegorical tales. Ivan Krylov, a Russian writer in the eighteenth century, turned to writing fables to draw attention to bureaucratic corruption and the desperate lives of Russia’s serfs because he could slip them passed the censors who didn’t understand allegory.
One of my favourite fables, a long one, is Reynard the Fox by that most prolific of authors, Anonymous. This parody of the excesses of church and state in the Middle Ages was known since the twelfth century in many verse and prose versions, but England’s first printer, William Caxton, translated it into English and published it in 1481.
If we listen carefully at the door of Caxton’s candle-lit study cluttered with books and papers, we hear him chuckling at both the coarse jests and the underlying subtleties as he searches for just the right turn of phrase to convey the spirit of the story.
The gist of the tale, set with delightful rural details in Flanders, is that Reynard the fox is a trickster: he steals from the other animals, cons them out of their rights, lays devious traps which lead them into trouble or kill them, rapes their wives, and manipulates his accusers with lies and flattery.
Lion, King Noble with absolute power over all the animals, summons all his subjects to a gathering at Whitsun. Reynard disobeys the instruction because he has a guilty conscience and, in his absence, each of the animals lays complaints against Reynard to the king. Bruin the bear is sent to bring Reynard to the royal court to answer the charges. Reynard feigns cooperation, but tricks Bruin into thinking there is honey inside the cleft of a tree, in which Bruin gets stuck and is beaten by the farmer. Tybert the cat is sent next, and Reynard entices him with mice into a gin trap.
On three later occasions, Reynard confesses his misdemeanours to his nephew, Grimbert the badger, and comes before the king’s court, but wriggles his way out of trouble by claiming sympathy for invented wrongs or by blaming others. The other animals, especially the powerful ones, are not innocent of crime either.
Extricating himself from another scrape, Reynard tricks the Ape’s wife, Dame Rukenaw, into speaking up for him at the King’s Council and putting pressure on the lesser animals to support him. Before a set battle with his rival, Isegrim, the wolf with a monk’s tonsure, Rukenaw shaves Reynard all over and oils his fat body so that wolf cannot grip him, and gives him the following advice on tactics:
“Drink a lot tonight so that you have a full bladder tomorrow, then at the right moment, piss on your tail and swipe it in the wolf’s face. Aim for his eyes to blind him, but otherwise keep your tail between your legs so he can’t catch you by it, and keep your arse down to stop him grabbing you by the … “
There is no redemption in this tale; neither repentance nor final victory of good over evil. The German root of the name ‘Reynard’ means ‘hardened’, as in ‘hardened criminal’. In his epilogue, the un-named author tells his readers that though the book is full of jests it also contains wisdom, and if they recognise any of these faults in themselves, it is up to them to improve their ways.
The adventures of Reynard were read voraciously all over Europe; Thomas Carlyle described it as “for some centuries, a universal household possession and secular Bible, read every where in the palace and the hut.”
A faithful rendering of Caxton’s original publication can be found online at Internet Archive and can be read and enjoyed quite easily with a little patience.
And Reynard is still relevant. I can think of a number of prominent world figures who fit his description and could benefit from reading it.
One of the early challenges for Story was the development of writing systems about five-thousand years ago. Story was ambivalent about writing. A written story distanced the storyteller from their audience, whereas an oral story was a shared, lived experience. A story, once written down, could become fixed as the ‘correct’ version and lead to claims of ownership. And writing hardened the hierarchical divisions in societies because it quickly became the preserve of priests and kings, who understood the power of words made permanent and controlled the knowledge of writing with curses and laws.
Socrates didn’t think much of writing either. Greek culture was based on discourse, debate; to put your argument down in writing as if nothing more need be said was cheating, it evaded verbal challenge. And I’m reminded here of the difference between a written political manifesto and a live TV debate.
On the positive side, writing enabled ancient tales of Gilgamesh, Aesop’s fables, the epics of Homer, and the equally great Indian epic, the Ramayana, to be recorded and preserved for us to enjoy today thousands of years later.
But writing also opened up room for manipulating the old oral stories. When Christian monks in Ireland wrote down for the first time the old pagan myths they took a few liberties. They rewrote pagan gods as mortals and turned heroes into Christian saints in their efforts to convert the heathen Irish.
And they sought to change social attitudes towards women. In pre-Christian Celtic cultures, women had rights to property ownership and inheritance and they fought in battle. In one of the best known Irish tales, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, or The Tain, the monks who rewrote the story sometime around the tenth century, turned Maev, a great warrior queen, into a nagging wife.
In Arabic literature, similar adaptations were made of pre-Islamic Bedouin stories, which had also celebrated strong women.
But the thing about myths is this: to be effective in influencing people’s beliefs, myths have to be enthralling tales. They must capture the audience’s imagination. So, the monks had to keep in all the exciting bits, and in this way, Story managed to hold on to many threads of the old myths. I’d like to read you the beginning of the chapter on Celtic stories, called Saints and Heroes. I’d like to read you the beginning of the chapter on Celtic mythology.
‘Oh Donnchad, great is the shame to thee to be seeking writing from myself on the feast of Finnian.’ (A note scribbled by a grumpy Irish scribe in the margin of a thirteenth-century manuscript.)
His name was Fland, a monk squinting in the paltry light of a tallow candle, breathing its acrid smoke in chill clammy air trapped, like Fland, within the stone walls of his monastery. With his colleagues enjoying the feast day and probably a celebratory sup of mead, his lot would be a slab of stale bread soaked in sour beer.
Let us leave poor Fland to his labours, walk out into the sallow winter sun, and sit with our kinsfolk on lush turf beneath the monastery enclosure where Brother Sean is telling the story of Saint Finnian’s life, of how he came to lay the first stones of his abbey in Clonard, and counted Saint Ciaran among his pupils there. We have heard the tales so many times we know them without paying much heed, and soon, enchanted by the echo of the sea purring amongst rocks below, we drift in our imagination to ancient times.
No monastery of course, no saints. We listen as Story tells of Dagdha, the great provider and father of all the gods, whose voracious appetite for porridge is satisfied by his magic cauldron that remains full however many thousands are fed from it; of Anu, mother of all the world who drops stones from her apron to form the hills around us, and in her guise as Morrigan, goddess of love, war and sovereignty, conjoins with Dagdha to give birth to Brigid, a sun goddess and guardian of healers, artisans, fertility and poetry; and of the giant, Balor, he of the baneful eye which slaughters hundreds of the enemy with but a sweeping glance.
Best of all, we hear tales of our heroes: wise Cormac mac Art, High King of Ireland, patron of the Fianna, his elite corps of warriors; and of valiant Cúchulainn, wrapped around with a crimson cloak in his gleaming chariot pulled by two miraculous horses. At the age of eight, he becomes a warrior whose body swells and warps to incredible strength when battle-rage is upon him. In his teens, Cúchulainn single-handedly defends Ulster, and faces the ultimate challenge of a fight to the death with his foster-brother, Ferdia.
In the Middle Ages, few ordinary people could read. Even those who could were unable to read literature because learning was written in elite languages of scholarship: in Europe, Greek and Latin, in Japan and China – classical Chinese, and in India, Sanskrit and Persian. Even Leonardo de Vinci could not read Latin. There was a wide gulf between the oral stories of the people, and literature for the elite. We still have a perceived divide between genre fiction and literary fiction, yet every well-told story has value.
But in Italy in the thirteenth century, Dante began to write poetry in his native Italian dialect rather than in Latin. And a generation later, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote his saucy tales the Decameron in vernacular Italian. And in England, after two prolonged business trips to Italy, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his wonderful Canterbury Tales in vernacular English, making it possible for his stories to be enjoyed by the common people.
Chaucer also brought to life in his verse the realities of existence for common citizens. Whether folk could read or not (and most could not), they could now hear some of the best stories ever written, in their native tongue and about issues that affected their own lives. These were plots and characters they could recognise, identify with, or laugh at.
Although Chaucer drew on Boccaccio’s work for some of his tales, and similarly adopted a framing device – a pilgrimage to Canterbury is the frame within which pilgrims tell their stories to amuse each other on their arduous journey – Chaucer’s Tales is uniquely English. It was also the first time such a socially inclusive tale, so diverse in content and character, had been written in England and it became immensely popular.
Realistic dialogue, more complex plotting, and deeper characters than traditional stereotypes, were all Chaucer’s own elaborations in storytelling and were innovative for his time. The Canterbury Tales is rich in unforgettable personalities and distinctive voices, portraying sordid facts of medieval life in equally explicit language, underpinned as it was by conflicts between social classes and within the church – and all told with coarse good humour. Much of this conflict reflected the massive social impact of the Black Death, which it was Chaucer’s first piece of good fortune to avoid.
A similar movement towards the native language began in Bengal in India, in the early nineteenth century. Peary Chand Mitra, a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian and curator of Calcutta Public Library, wrote prose stories and launched a monthly magazine in vernacular Bengali. He was ridiculed by the literati, but his stories were hugely popular among ordinary people. And this was some 30 years before Rudyard Kipling published his Plain Tales from the Hills, but Kipling never mentions Indian writers.
The next big historical milestone for Story was the invention of moveable-type printing. The Chinese had been block printing for centuries and the Koreans invented moveable type in Asia. But Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in Europe made the distribution of ideas and learning quicker and cheaper, although most books were still in Latin or other scholarly languages. And those pesky ‘priests and kings’ who had controlled writing, tried to suppress the printing of ideas they didn’t agree with. In many parts of Europe, free thinkers were burnt at the stake as heretics.
But the new technology went too far too fast to be stopped. Story grabbed the printing press and ran. Printing gave a huge boost to the Reformation in Europe and the rise of humanism. Centuries later, without the wide distribution and huge success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, slavery might have taken longer to end in America. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness played a role in ending the atrocities in King Leopold’s Congo colony, and Charles Dickens gave voice to the plight of child labour in the industrial revolution.
Russian writers have always addressed social injustice and engaged in a struggle between freedom of speech and censorship. Although Nikolai Gogol never openly criticised the government, his novel, Dead Souls reveals the inhumanity of serfdom. I’d like to read a bit of background to the plot of Dead Souls.
‘Souls’, referred to serfs: tied to the property of their masters, they were a form of wealth; a landowner’s status partly derived from the number of ‘peasant souls’ he owned, and they could be used, for example, as collateral for a bank loan. But the people in this novel are not merely caricatures of Russian types of the times; they also represent common human weaknesses: the protagonist, Chichikov, a venal character posing as a gentleman of business, manipulates provincial officials prone to flattery and self-interest, and cons suspicious but greedy middle-class gentry.
Landowners paid taxes on their total number of serfs as on any other physical asset, a tax that was payable even if serfs had died since the last census, which could be ten or twenty years past. Chichikov’s scam was to buy these ‘dead souls’ – which were nothing but a tax burden on their owners – for a nominal sum in deals that were to be kept secret. His own secret was that, on his return to the city, he planned to offer these spurious souls as security to buy an estate of his own.
Nineteenth-century novels are considered too verbose for today’s readers, but Dead Souls is still a rewarding read. The simple plot, apparently suggested by Pushkin, gave Gogol a vehicle to take Chichikov all over Russia interacting with countless citizens of all classes.
Anton Chekhov was born shortly after serfdom was abolished, but life for the majority of peasants was little improved – a situation that Chekhov felt keenly.
Not until 1861 was serfdom abolished, but its death throes were lethal. Alexander had passed his instructions to emancipate the serfs to committees of provincial landowners for implementation. The outcome gave landowners the right to decide which parts of their land (generally the poorest) they would sell to freed serfs at often inflated valuations. The poorest peasants could not acquire sufficient acreage for subsistence. Those who could not pay became landless peasants often worse off than before; those who could were likely to face generations of debt.
The whole process was slow and did little to stem social inequality or simmering unrest. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov – another ‘father’ of the short story – was born a year after emancipation was decreed; thirty-five years later, having attended a dinner to mark this milestone in Russian history, he wrote some caustic comments in his diary:
“February 19. Dinner at the ‘Continental’ to commemorate the great reform. Tedious and incongruous. To dine, drink champagne, make a racket, and deliver speeches about national consciousness, the conscience of the people, freedom, and such things, while slaves in tail-coats are running round your tables, veritable serfs, and your coachmen wait outside in the street, in the bitter cold—that is lying to the Holy Ghost.”
Chekhov’s grandparents had bought their freedom from serfdom long before emancipation. His father opened a grocery shop in Taganrog, where the Don flows into the Sea of Azov, and raised his family there; a life that provided a rich source of stories for The Stammerer, a humorous magazine the school-boy Chekhov produced to entertain his brothers.
I would love to have met Chekhov. His diary of 1897 is online at Project Gutenberg.
Chekhov wrote many stories about poverty in Russia but the censors eliminated much of what he wrote at the time. We are indebted to his sister, Maria Chekhova for collecting and preserving his huge body of work.
Politics and protest are unavoidable elements of social survival and Story has always played an important part. George Orwell claimed that all writing is political. He didn’t mean party politics of course. Politics in its broadest sense is about values, values that determine who has power and how that power is used in producing and distributing a society’s resources. Even when a writer is creating fantasy worlds – for that fictional world to work and be convincing, values and power underlay characters’ actions and their consequences. There is a political vision, conscious or unconscious, inherent in every story, every piece of writing.
The vision may be blatant, or masked in allegory, or more subtly, the nature of the story itself may have a political effect simply by its presence, like Walter Scott’s historical novels, which made a wide impact all over Europe and beyond. Over a million copies of his books were sold in his lifetime. Let’s hear a little bit about Walter – he is a special favourite of mine.
His flaxen hair spilling over the river bank, young Walter slid his hand gently beneath the water. He was trying to tickle a trout – an old Highland poacher’s trick taught him by his grandfather’s shepherd. To catch a fish in this way requires total concentration. Walter’s thoughts hovered elsewhere, his head full of ancient battles, his pocket full of ballads. The lucky trout escaped.
Walter rolled back onto the grass and took from another pocket the verses of Milton he had copied out with great labour, and not without a few blots and scratchings-out. Though he had seen only six summers he could already recite, with the passion of an actor, the poets of the day as well as those of his Scottish heritage; both heard first at his mother’s knee. To cure the paralysis of his right leg – the results of an infant fever – he had been sent at two years old from his Edinburgh home to live on his grandfather’s farm at Sandy Knowe in Tweeddale, on the Scottish Borders, where his bonnie appearance and cheerful chatterbox nature made him a great favourite.
Scott wrote the following lines about this period of his childhood:
‘For I was wayward, bold, and wild, /A self-willed imp, a grandame’s child; /But half a plague, and half a jest, /Was still endured, beloved, carest.’
Walter’s most devoted ‘henchman’, Sandy Ormistoun, his grandfather’s cow-baillie, carried him around the farm on his shoulders until he was old enough to ride his own Shetland pony, Marion. That full freedom of the moors and meadows of Tweeddale inspired much of Walter Scott’s future writing, along with the folk-tales told him by his doting grandmother and aunts.
The battles in Walter’s head were those of the Jacobite Rising lead by Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – and his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. It had happened only thirty years earlier, within living memory, and Walter would have listened, entranced, to the personal tales of his older relatives.
After Culloden, it was forbidden for Highlanders to wear the plaid, or to speak Gaelic. Every aspect if Highland culture and identity was suppressed. So when, in adulthood, Walter Scott collected and published the old Scottish ballads – the sung stories of Scotland – he became a national hero.
Walter published his collection of ballads, ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders’ in 1802, to great popular acclaim. He was a national hero. His work stirred the general mood of nostalgia for a romantic past in Europe and America, and it restored Scotland’s national pride. The work greatly influenced European writers and it was a favourite reading of Napoleon, even as he plotted to invade Britain. Walter had kept closely to the original oral material, contributing to it only to sew together fragments and fill gaps. Launched into fame, he embarked on narrative poetry of his own with ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’, ‘Lady of the Lake’, and ‘Marmion’ which commemorated the battle of Flodden Field. The patriotism expressed in Marmion held special appeal with Britain under threat from invasion:
‘Breathes there a man with soul so dead /Who never to himself hath said, /‘“This is my land, my native land.”’
Scott was offered a thousand guineas by Archibald Constable – the Edinburgh book seller then a publisher – before Constable had even read the poem. Even before Marmion was published, Walter had written the first six chapters of a prose work on the Jacobite Rising but had abandoned it. He came upon it again about eight years later when searching for some fishing tackle in an old cabinet. It became his first novel, Waverley – Sixty Years Since, published in 1814: the forerunner of an extremely successful series of some twenty tales of adventure, intrigue and conflicting loyalties set in a picturesque Scottish landscape.
The celebrated Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe had this to say about story-power: “Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit – in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.”
And many more voices, especially women’s voices are now being heard from all over the world, writing their own histories, sharing their struggles and forging their identities with help from Story.
In our digital age, modern ‘priests and kings’ still seek control over our narratives, through spin doctors, corporate controlled media, surveillance, closing down websites and the rest of it. We can meet modern challenges only if Story is free. Like Sheherazade, we must recognise our story-power, hold onto our values and make our stories heard.
Details of the new cultural history, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, can be found here